Primo Levi’s reflection on humanity in crisis: Survival in Auschwitz (If This is a man)

Primo Levi’s memoir, Survival in Auschwitz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, translated by Giulio Einaudi), is not just about the author’s survival in the notorious Nazi concentration camp, but above all about the survival of his humanity after enduring such a grueling process of dehumanization. Published in 1947 under the Italian title If This is a Man (Se questo e un uomo), the author doesn’t claim to offer new information in this autobiographical book. Nor does he wish to level fresh accusations against the Nazis. Written in a calm, observational tone, Survival in Auschwitz sets out “to furnish documentation for a quiet study of certain aspects of the human mind” (9).

Thoughtful and thought provoking, the narrative constitutes a reflection on the power—and limits—of forgiveness. In an interview published by the New Republic on February 16, 1986, Levi announces that he did not harbor feelings of hatred towards the Germans. He explains: “I regard hatred as bestial and crude, and prefer that my actions and thoughts be the product, as far as possible, of reason. Much less do I accept hatred directed collectively at an ethnic group, for example at all the Germans.” Levi views the Holocaust not as a reflection of the German nation, but as a much broader crisis of humanity. Nation after nation fell under the Nazi spell and power as many engaged in terrific acts of cruelty.

Does this mean that the author absolves the Nazi of moral responsibility for their actions? Not at all. In the same interview, Primo Levi qualifies: “All the same, I would not want my abstaining from explicit judgment to be confused with an indiscriminate pardon.” He explains that he can only forgive those who show–through their actions, not just their words–that they take responsibility and feel guilty for their crimes against humanity. He is speaking, above all, of the crimes of ordinary men and women.

In Survival in Auschwitz Levi describes how inflicting harm upon other human beings becomes completely routine. Without harboring any particular hatred, Nazi officers conduct the selection process and send hundreds of thousands of people—including practically all women and children—to their deaths in the gas chambers. One of the questions that continues to preoccupy Levi throughout his life is how this mass murder can become commonplace—little more than doing one’s job–and how much the German population at large knew about it and allowed it to happen.

In the 1986 New Republic interview Levi, characteristically, offers a very reasonable answer: because totalitarian regimes function very differently from democracies it’s not possible to have a dissemination of truthful information and open criticism of despicable actions in totalitarian regimes that we can have in democratic societies. Yet, by the same token, Levi remarks, “it was not possible to hide the existence of the enormous concentration camp apparatus from the German people. What’s more, it was not (from the Nazi point of view) even desirable. Creating and maintaining an atmosphere of undefined terror in the country was one of the aims of Nazism.”

Perhaps one of the most profound observations in Survival in Auschwitz is the statement that just as absolute happiness is impossible, so is absolute unhappiness, even in the hellish conditions of the Nazi concentration camps. Human beings gradually adapt to each phase of the process of dehumanization: starting with the isolation from the rest of the population in Jewish ghettos; to the order to gather by the train station to be transported in cattle trains to the concentration camps (he describes how lovingly mothers pack for the trip clothes and nourishment for their children, p.91); to the brutal conditions of the camps themselves. At each phase, victims focus on the moment-to-moment fight for survival. Heroism in such adverse conditions becomes almost impossible; while, conversely, as Levi observes, “to sink is the easiest of matters; it is enough to carry out all the orders one receives, to eat only the ration, to observe the discipline of the work and the camp” (Survival in Auschwitz, 90). In such a context, the quest for survival assumes heroic dimensions in itself, as is the ability to endure extreme hardship while remaining human and humane. Few are able achieve this: among those few is Levi’s friend, Lorenzo, the man who motivates him to do the same and whom he remembers fondly for the rest of his life.

When asked, in the New Republic interview, why a grander, more ambitious heroism didn’t occur in the camps—“How is it that there were no large-scale revolts? —Levi reminds readers that in the heavily guarded concentration camps, “Escape was difficult and extremely dangerous. The prisoners were debilitated, besides being demoralized, by hunger and ill treatment. Their heads were shaved, their striped clothing was immediately recognizable, and their wooden clogs made silent and rapid walking impossible.” Moreover, the prisoners were in a foreign country whose inhabitants were largely hostile to them or, at best, indifferent to their plight and whose local language they didn’t speak. As for revolts, Levi points out, they existed—in Treblinka, Sobibor and Birkenau. However, “They did not have much numerical weight. Like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they represented, rather, examples of extraordinary moral force. In every instance they were planned and led by prisoners who were privileged in some way, and consequently in better physical and spiritual condition than the average camp prisoner.”

Although he remained, philosophically speaking, a humanist and rationalist throughout his life despite the severe trauma he experienced in the Nazi concentration camps, Levi eventually succumbed to its effects: the depression and nightmares that haunted him throughout his life. In April 1987 he died after falling from his third-story apartment in Turin, which many close to him considered a suicide. Yet he did not write, suffer and die in vain. Through his memoirs, books and interviews, Primo Levi left behind an invaluable intellectual legacy that helps us recall, commemorate, and understand better the worst humanitarian crisis in our history.

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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